Article

Caucasian Languages

Marina Chumakina

in Linguistics

ISBN: 9780199772810
Published online October 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0057
Caucasian Languages

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  • Linguistics
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  • Language Families
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Medieval Arab geographers called the Caucasus “a mountain of tongues.” Many diverse languages are spoken in this relatively small area, but the term “Caucasian languages” usually applies only to languages that belong to one of the three linguistic families indigenous to the Caucasus: Kartvelian (also referred to as South Caucasian), West Caucasian (Northwest Caucasian, Abkhaz-Adyghe), and East Caucasian (Northeast Caucasian, Nakh-Daghestanian). These languages are believed to have been spoken in the area for at least four thousand years. West and East Caucasian were traditionally joined into one family, but now most specialists agree that all three are genetically unrelated. Nevertheless, the notion “Caucasian languages” makes sense: they are spoken in a contiguous geographic area, which is characterized by cultural homogeneity and established trading contacts. Traditionally, specialists in Caucasian languages and cultures have been trained across three families, both in the Soviet Union (which included the Russian Federation and Georgia) and abroad, partly for practical reasons: specializing in these languages often presupposes knowing Russian or Georgian. The Kartvelian languages are spoken predominantly in Georgia; West and East Caucasian languages are spoken mostly in the Russian Federation. Kartvelian is a relatively small family in terms of number of languages but with a high number of speakers (Georgian has more than four million) and a long literary tradition, whereas East Caucasian comprises twenty-six languages, many of which are spoken in just one village and are either unwritten or developed their written forms within the last two hundred years. More details are given for each family in respective sections (see Kartvelian, West Caucasian, and East Caucasian). All Caucasian languages are characterized by rich consonantism; rich inflection, especially in verb systems; and ergative alignment. Out of the three, the Kartvelian languages are probably the best studied, though much of the materials are in Georgian. During the 20th century much was written on East and West Caucasian languages (mainly in Russian), mostly on their phonology and morphology. Only recently have the syntactic riches of these languages been discovered—partly due to the progress in syntactic theory.

Article.  9214 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Anthropological Linguistics ; Language Families ; Psycholinguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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